The American Pilgrims' Progress

THE first great book written in America mysteriously disappeared on the eve of the Revolution and left no trace behind. Was Gov Bradford's manuscript history of "Plimouth Plantation" packed off by Gov Hutchinson, when he packed himself off from rebel Boston? Or was it destroyed in the sacking of the Governor's house by a Boston mob? Or was it taken from the tower of the Old South Meeting House by King George's retreating soldiers after they had misused that Puritan holy of holies as a riding school?

The American Pilgrims' Progress had been lost 75 years, when a browser in an old book store in Boston was startled to come upon the first clue to a mystery. This was a reference by an English author to a nameless manuscript in the library of the Bishop of London, which proved to be the long missing Bradford history. After 40 years more of negotiation, this precious record of her birth and youth was resorted to Massachusetts and enshrined beneath the gilded dome of her State House.

With the finding of the lost book, American biography also found one of its strongest, most interesting characters in the author himself. In the first six months at Plymouth William Bradford, plowboy and weaver, rose from the ranks to meet the battalion of misfortunes that assailed the infant colony. With occasional intervals, he remained until his death, 35 years afterward, the chosen governor, judge and guide, the father of the Pilgrim fathers. Unlike most of the born leaders that the American frontier has developed, he was a scholar as well, with a self-taught knowledge of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Dutch.

When this American John Bunyan, 10 years after the landing from the Mayflower, began to write the chronicles of the Pilgrims he had no expectation of a printer. Since there were only 300 inhabitants in all the colony at that time, his modest subject would not repay printing, and he wrote only for the instruction of his children. After two centuries had yellowed its pages, this story of a little group of obscure people was seen to be a well of English undefiled, pellucid and noble simplicity, sparkling with a kindly humor . . . the most human, most interesting document in the history of a great Nation.

Plymouth did not pretend to any more tolerance of other creeds than Boston. But the Pilgrim was simpler, humbler and not iced over with the learned arrogance of the Puritan. He did not make so bold as to follow the example of John Calvin in keeping his hat on and his eyes open when addressing the Lord in prayer. Nor did Plymouth ever turn any man from its door, as Boston so pitilessly did. Again and again its spirit of hospitality was taxed to find food for the stranger and the patience to bear with many who abused its kindness.

Although Plymouth banned church holidays as popish, when some interlopers pleaded that their conscience would not let them work on Christmas day of 1621, they were good naturally excused from labor. But when they began to play pitching the bar, stool ball and other games of old England, their festive party was broken up. "Since which time," Gov Bradford grimly added "nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly."

Church weddings were rejected as unscriptural. Marriage was a legal contract and under civil authority.

Myles Standish was guilty of a breach of custom if Longfellow correctly described his courtship—and the pretty story from which the poet drew his inspiration did not make its first appearance in print until almost 200 years after the supposed event. The captain ought not to have proposed to Priscilla, even by proxy, but to her father. At least one wooer was fined for popping the question to a girl before he had obtained paternal permission, and he was bound over not to do so again.

Cut off from the interior by lack of a river and by the presence of a wilderness, which still hems in the old town, Plymouth never was destined to be a great port or center. To overcome that disadvantage, the colonists established distant trading stations on the Kennebec and the Connecticut, where they could tap the fur supplies of the Indians.

Sowing and reaping, fishing and trafficking, the Pilgrims drove the wolf of hunger from the door. By the practice of New England thrift, they ransomed themselves from bondage to the money lenders of London. They were the first colony in English America to be self-supporting, to stand on its own legs.

Plymouth attained that goal in seven years, when the colony yet numbered only 57 men, 29 women, 24 boys and girls, not counting some score or more of servants. The possessions of those 156 persons in 1628 consisted of four cows, seven young heifers, four young bulls, 18 goats, sundry pigs and poultry—and freedom! "We are all freeholders," Gov Bradford exulted; "rent day doth not trouble us."

Soon a few were tacking "gent" on to their names. That bit of social pretension was only proof of a swift Americanization. Those Englishmen, had they stayed in England, never would have presumed that men of their lowly birth and slender estate could make themselves gentlemen, and without the laying on of royal hands.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 28, 1927, p. 22